Saturday, April 2, 2011

The Zen of Pointing at the Moon

I have been writing this blog for a little over two years now. Being a writer has been part of my life since I was a young kid scrawling goofy titles onto otherwise mundane homework assignments. So, you might say that I like to breathe life into words. To do my best to convey the world through this imperfect medium.

After some rocky efforts to explore what I'd call an alternative approach to disaster relief (see posts from the beginning of the week), and continued toe dipping as a man into the muddy world of feminist blogs, I came across this post by Arun from Angry Asian Buddhist. He writes:

Marginalization is a problem, but the issue isn’t race. I’ve typically framed the place of Asians in Western Buddhism as one where we’re marginalized by White Buddhists, but this framework glosses over the very same marginalization between different Asian communities. How often do you see Cambodian Buddhists attending Korean Zen centers, or Chinese Buddhist publications open their pages to Sri Lankan writers? And just as Asians Buddhists marginalize each other, so do White Buddhists.

One of the main themes of Arun's post is that the language he has been using failed to capture what he wanted to say. Furthermore, the language he used may have limited both his own vision, and that of his readers influenced by what he has said.

Now, my toe dipping on those feminist blogs has gone off and on for several months now. There are a lot of disagreements on these blogs, some of them extremely nasty, in part due to the same kinds of language problems. Say a word, phrase, or sentence that sounds like it supports some kind of oppression, and all hell breaks loose. On a few of those blogs, if you're a man who says it, it's almost certain all hell will break loose.

Like the race issues that lead to the argument Arun was in, gender issues are a deeply complex territory filled with people from various "schools of thought" trying to claim to have all the answers. Using language. Something that any of us Zen students worth a lick of salt know can't capture it all.

So, all of this has gotten me thinking about the ways in which people might be reading my writing, and others' writing. How I might be reading others' writing.

Writing that meta post the other day was a lot about the disaster relief discussion I was trying to have, but actually it was also about how everything I offer is partial. It's hopefully pointing in the right direction, a direction that leads towards a more liberated mind, body, and "spirit." However, even so, it's still partial, just as every last spiritual teaching on the planet is partial. Pointing to the moon, but not the moon. Right?

This doesn't mean that all writing is equally valuable. Equally helpful. Equally liberating. Some work aids moving towards liberation, while other work is just a hindrance. There's probably 1000X as much hindrance as there is liberation-centric material.

Yet, one of the things that witnessing and participating in all of these discussions has shown me is that, in order to find a way to speak, to write, in a manner that might spark liberation, a person must wade into the mud. You have to struggle to convey yourself, your understanding, your views, and your confusion - and through dialogue, experience, and even some conflict - the false and inaccurate parts are worn away, and the stone of truth comes forth.

Sometimes, this happens fairly quickly, and sometimes, it might take lifetimes. Battles over gender and race have been going on for centuries; there's no knowing if in my lifetime, enough of us will have liberated ourselves of oppressive narratives in order to shift the social tides. And regardless, it won't happen through language alone. No one can write the way to freedom for themselves, or the world. It's only one piece, an important one perhaps, but still only one form of expressing the total dynamic functioning of this life.

In fact, it's important to remember this even if someone is writing about something seemingly simple, like mindfulness while washing the dishes. That, too, might be a great lesson, or not. Perhaps they haven't found the language yet to truly express their understanding. And perhaps they're trying to express something they have no understanding or experience of at all. I've been on both those tracks. I doubt anyone is immune from doing so.

Every day is an opportunity to work with the particular mud before you, to see it and step right into it as best as you can. In my own life, writing has been one of the major tools I use to do this. It helps me to discern which mud is mine to work with, and which mud isn't.(There's plenty out there that isn't "your mud" or isn't "yours anymore," if you catch my drift.)

Maybe some of you have other major tools you use. Obviously, things like meditation and yoga would fit in here. But maybe you have other things - gardening, dancing, making music, painting - the list is probably endless. What points you in the direction of the moon (enlightened living)? And how do you offer as moon pointers to others?

I'll leave you all with a poem from Ryokan (1758-1831). Enjoy the rest of the weekend!

You stop to point at the moon in the sky,
but the finger's blind unless the moon is shining.

One moon, one careless finger pointing --
are these two things or one?

The question is a pointer guiding
a novice from ignorance thick as fog.

Look deeper. The mystery calls and calls:
No moon, no finger -- nothing there at all.


kevin said...

I like this post a lot, it's something I've been dancing around in posts of my own for a while.

The opener, I don't read that blog just because of some of the quotes you've posted here. Having "angry" in the title puts me off right there, it always sounds like he's mad that white people have stolen something his people have a patent on. I don't think anyone complained in India when the Buddhism in China branched from tradition, or in China when the Japanese did the same. It's like the Republican party claiming patriotism and family values as their own. It tells me that if I'm not Asian or at least wish I was, I can't call myself a Buddhist. I have a problem with that kind of nationalism and frankly it smells a bit like SGI.

That rant being over...

Some of my studies have helped inform my current views as well as this response.

When reading posts that stir unpleasant emotions it's important to remember "Hearing the words, understand the meaning;
don’t set up standards of your own." They usually mean well, and their intention to share their view of the dharma.

The metaphor of wading into the mud is like the (reference I can't remember or find now) wading into the water to ferry all sentient beings across.

The biggest problem with words is that they are necessary; If we speak we're wrong, don't speak we're still wrong. Imperfect tools to express perfect ideas. (there's a theme expressed often, especially recently with the faults of teachers being in the spotlight)

Thanks for the post.

p.s. I was surprised recently to find out that in some cultures it's considered bad luck to point at the moon, that's a koan itself and what acan of worms it is.

Nathan said...

Hi Kevin,

I do know that Arun is playing off a well known blogger named "Angry Asian Man" who frequently writes about race issues. I haven't gotten the sense that he views Buddhism as an exclusively "Asian" thing, but what I see in his current comments is a sense that he feels the way he's written might led people to believe so. And more particularly, that the writing offers too general a focus by using terms like "Asian" to speak about such a diverse group of people.

Anyway, I'm totally digging this:

"When reading posts that stir unpleasant emotions it's important to remember "Hearing the words, understand the meaning;
don’t set up standards of your own." They usually mean well, and their intention to share their view of the dharma."

The Sandokai can be such a great teaching. And it's fun to chant too!